U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. Corporate Political Spending

Back in January, the United States Supreme Court released its judgment in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission 558 U.S. 50 (2010) [PDF], a challenge by a “non-profit corporation” to §441b of the U.S. Code limiting election spending by corporations. In the words of the judgment’s syllabus (i.e. headnote):

[This] federal law prohibits corporations and unions from using their general treasury funds to make independent expenditures for speech that is an “electioneering communication” or for speech that expressly advocates the election or defeat of a candidate.

The court decided 5-4 that the law could not stand, that it was an unjustified abridgement of the plaintiff’s constitutional right to free speech. (There is a good Wikipedia article on the decision.)

The judgement appears to have opened up a spending spree by corporations weighing in on current political issues and politicians; the messages have almost exclusively a highly conservative bent, as might be imagined. Typically, this corporate support is disguised or obscured as the messages purport to emanate from groups with innocuous names. For a good description of some of the corporations, people, and machinery behind these right-wing message groups, take a look at an article in the latest issue of New Yorker, “Covert Operations, The billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama,” by Jane Mayer.

Clearly U.S. President Obama is concerned by this new corporate spending. He delivered a video warning about it in his most recent Weekly Address, describing a “flood of attack ads run by shadowy groups with harmless sounding names.” He lays the blame in so many words at the feet of the Supreme Court and its decision in Citizens United.

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